MARK AND SARAH: A big thank you to the many people who kindly commented on our last blog Cabbages and Condoms. According to the online stats and the feedback we have received it was by far the most “well received” blog to date. It was written during a bit of a low period, but thanks to you, our spirits are now fully restored and we’re back in serious traveller mode. Talking of back, Sarah’s is much better (thanks Mags) and now, all’s well with our World.
But a few days ago it was a slightly different story…
MARK: The overnight sleeper train chugged along at just over 50mph, swaying from side to side. Bangkok was now three hours behind us, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand ten hours ahead. The £4.50 bargain alarm clock bought from Tesco’s showed it was 10.00pm on Monday 2nd November 2015.
The journey was uneventful. A means of transport. The toilets were clean, they didn’t smell of wee. The food served wasn’t bad – a bit bland. The bunk beds were clean and relatively comfortable. A cockroach made an appearance, but it was bored and decided pretty quickly to go back to its hole not to be seen again. Demi was pleased! There was no real excitement. It was all a bit flat really.
The word flat aptly sums up our two days in Bangkok. We probably should have spent just one night there – like the song said! Flat I guess because we’d been there before and we both realised why we rarely go back to the same place twice. Seen it done it and then move on to somewhere new as boredom soon sets in. This the mantra that best works for us. Deviate and it doesn’t seem to work.
Sadly, things excitement wise didn’t improve much next day in Chiang Mai, the back-packers Mecca, 500 miles north of the capital.
Our early morning arrival coincided with a timely and somewhat “spooky” FACEBOOK Messenger note from John Hodson, Reading Supporter and International Swedish Bank Manager.
“I wondered whether you might get to a point where you got almost de-sensitised to new sights and sounds because you had seen just so many new things?”
At that precise moment the answer was probably yes. The Chiang Mai market was ok, the park quite nice. The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple was interesting enough, but again it was all a bit samey. If you’ve seen one temple, you haven’t quite seen them all but…. Sorry Barry!
So 30 hours later we were glad to move on again, having wondered if we should have been to the Lady Boy show, or learnt what some “ladies” do with ping-pong balls at one of the more seedier night clubs. Perhaps this would have spiced things up a bit.
Heading 200 miles further north, in two brand new Toyota mini-busses we travelled to the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand borders Mynamur (Burma) and Laos. Along the way we stopped at Wat Rong Khun a mind blowing white and silver temple that appears from distance to be made of porcelain. On closer examination, you see that it is made out of whitewash and reflective chips of mirror. Still impressive. In my Trip Advisor report I described it as Disneyland meeting Buddhaland, and indeed most reviews tend to agree that it is magnificent piece of art with religious connotations. I half expected Snow White to appear and walk down the main steps. She didn’t and we continued our journey to Chiang Khong, the light fast disappearing with another stunning sunset visible through the dirty windows.
And then suddenly at dinner that night, like a switch, the buzz and excitement came flooding back. The Group we are travelling with began to gel. I took part in “who can eat the hottest chilli dish” with Robby a lawyer from New York.
Meanwhile the mossies began to bite as we sat high above the Mekong River, with Laos just 500 yards away across the fast flowing moonlight water. With anticipation and excitement, we retired to our jungle lodge bedroom with the thought that tomorrow we would cross the border.
First light and Laos, a new country. A new visa and a new passport stamp to add to our growing collection. “Welcome to Laos Mr Mark St John” the border guard said. I hadn’t the heart to tell him St. John was my middle name. We were here and I had my Visa! Mist was rising from the valley floor in the early morning sun, the now 300 yard wide Mekong the only thing to divide Thailand from Laos.
A quick transfer in an old van, eight of us in the back and luggage on the roof hanging on with no straps.
And then wow the River. Clean air. Stunning beauty. Jagged limestone cliffs. Bright green jungle and vegetation all around. Our boat a three metre wide, 25 metre long, former cargo/fishing vessel that had been decked out with teak tables and what appeared to be seats taken from the inside of a Mitsubishi Shogun. This our new home (during the day) for 48 hours as we were to travel along the snaking Mekong, through stunning gorges, to Luang Prabang the UNESCO protected home of 4,000 Buddhas, 250km downstream.
Laos, a landlocked country* (can you name the five countries that borders Laos – see end of blog for answer) is simply stunning in terms of scenery. Our leisurely voyage, a cross between sailing down the Nile, the Yangtze and the Rhine whilst floating through a Caribbean island landscape of lush palms, banana plantations and dark green vines that twist and seem to strangle dapple green trees.
Four hours in and the front of the boat was beached on beautiful sand near the inside of a wide meander. It was our chance to see first-hand a remote jungle village. The village people (no pun intended China Group) had little money except one house that strangely sported a big sat’ dish. The rest, built on stilts, were basic with largely dried mud floors. But, the children smiled. They were loved and cared for. They were clearly happy. We were happy.
Back on the boat and a couple of cool cans of Laos beer went down all too easily. As 6.00pm approached the sun disappeared behind the mountains as our group of 15 arrived at the Mekong Jungle Lodge for our overnight stay. Memorable views in the evening and then again next morning as elephants bathed on the far banks of the river. Could this be Paradise?
Then bang. My mind switched as I read an online article.
I knew the people of Laos were “victims” of the Vietnam War which ended 40 years ago. But I didn’t fully realise what that still meant in 2015.
This country of beauty has the distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation. During the War, over half a million American bombing missions dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on this small country. That’s the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
Terrible stats, but worse still was the fact that most of the ordnance were anti-personnel cluster bombs, with each cluster shell containing hundreds of individual bomblets, about the size of a tennis ball. Thirty percent of these shells DIDN’T detonate! That’s estimated to be some 288 million cluster munitions plus 75 million unexploded bombs which presently sit across 18 Laotian provinces. They pose a real threat to children, who think the bombs are toys…
In the last ten years only 1 million bombs have been destroyed with over 20,000 deaths and serious injuries since the end of the war.
Brendan, a really nice American guy on our tour commented that it wasn’t America’s finest hour.
Indiscriminate bombing that killed thousands and still does to this day. What a legacy.
I could go on…. I won’t because this trip is about the here and now. But, digging a little deeper beneath the surface reveals what travel for me is all about. A random mix of history, geography and biology – ‘A’ Level text now finally coming alive and real. A unique experience. In this particular case a heady cocktail of beauty and the bomb literally living side by side.
As we continue or journey through Indo-China, this will doubtless be a recurring theme in Vietnam and Cambodia. History from my lifetime which I sadly remember.
But for now I want to remember the beauty. Flat no more, Laos has indelibly burnt itself in to our memory.
PLEASE CLICK ON LINK BELOW TO SEE VIDEO
*OF COURSE YOU KNEW – LAOS is bordered by China, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Give yourself five house points if you got all five countries.